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Dealing with the dead

One of life’s great truths is the inevitability of death. How to understand death and treat the dead are among the great questions facing religions.

Memorial stupa for the Buddha in Kathmandu, Nepal
This memorial stupa for the Buddha is in Kathmandu, Nepal.
William Hamblin

One of life’s great truths is the inevitability of death. How to understand death and treat the dead are among the great questions facing religions. A human body can transform from life into death in minutes, even seconds. What was one moment a beloved family member becomes a cold and empty shell. The first universal religious principle in this regard is that we should respect the dead, treating the body in death as we treated it in life.

But a problem arises from the fact that dead bodies start to decay very quickly, and the sight and smell of that decay is very offensive to humans. It’s not that the smells of perfume and decay are inherently different. Both are merely dispersed molecules floating in the air.

Rather, humans have an instinctive repulsion to the smell of rotting meat or fruit; it prevents us from eating bad food that can sicken or even kill us. In many cultures, touching the dead creates ritual impurity, which prevents full participation in the community’s religious life (Leviticus 21; Numbers 19). This is why, in the parable of the good Samaritan, both priest and Levite were unwilling to help the dying man on the roadside (Luke 10). Touching a corpse rendered them unable to perform their duties in the temple.

Before formaldehyde, decaying bodies also soon looked horrible, making a mockery of the beloved departed. Much of what is done in modern Western funerals is done to protect survivors from the wretched reality of a rotting corpse — to try to make the dead appear to be sleeping, not really dead at all. This is a modern version of the common ancient practice of preserving the corpse.

The most notable example of this is ancient Egyptian mummification, which amounts to dehydrating the body with natron, increasing alkalinity and preventing decay. Often, corpse preservation was related to belief in the resurrection of the dead; the corpse was preserved so it could ultimately be revived.

Another goal of the preservation of corpses was to prevent them from being eaten by carrion creatures. Of course, it would be extraordinarily distressing to see the body of the beloved deceased eaten by wild animals. In the Bible a prophetic curse reads “They shall be given over to the power of the sword. They shall be jackal food” (Psalm 63:10, World English Bible). That is, the war dead shall remain unburied. The most ancient and basic purpose for burial of the dead, either under earth or rock, was to prevent attacks on the corpse by wild animals.

Neolithic burial mound in Newgrange, Ireland
This Neolithic burial mound is in Newgrange, Ireland.
William Hamblin

A secondary purpose in burial is commemoration — that is, to make a burial site providing the living with a special spot to gather and remember the dead. The rich and powerful often create monumental tombs to commemorate their lives. They can remember the deceased’s name or her life, or commune with the spirt of the departed. This might involve invoking prayers on behalf of the dead, or making offerings of food, drink, tools, grave goods or flowers. Some invoke the spirit of a dead ancestor or holy person, asking for blessings or intercession with the gods.

Tomb of Jewish mystic Isaac Luria in Safed, Israel.
The tomb of Jewish mystic Isaac Luria is in Safed, Israel.
William Hamblin

Christ describes a greedy rich man in hell calling for the intercession of Abraham: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me” (Luke 16:24). Over time this developed into the widespread practice in many religions of praying at the tombs of righteous dead for intercession with God.

Tomb of the Patriarchs (Abraham), Hebron, Israel
The Tomb of the Patriarchs (Abraham) is in Hebron, Israel.
William Hamblin

Another common form of disposal of the dead is cremation, which nicely solves the problem of both decay of the corpse and attacks by carrion predators. The fire transforms the body into pure spirit, which, in the form of smoke, carries the soul into heaven. The ashes of the dead, sterilized from decay by fire, can be collected in a vessel for later commemoration, if desired.

Cremation, Varanasi, India
A cremation is performed in Varanasi, India.
William Hamblin

Paradoxically, some cultures practice exposure of the dead — that is, intentionally leaving a corpse exposed to the elements and carnivores to undergo the natural process of decay and disintegration. Many Central Asians and Zoroastrians, for example, leave their dead in open high places, sometimes called “Towers of Silence,” to be eaten by carrion birds. In Christianity, this practice is most notable with burials at sea, where the body is left to be eaten by the fish instead of birds, but with the promise that one day the sea will give up its dead (Revelation 20:13).

Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.